Zoya Gill has worked across almost every aspect of the education space.
At 33, they have been a high school teacher in both Melbourne and Canberra, a project and research manager at non-profit the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth, and, for the past two years, a senior policy officer at the Victorian Department of Education and Training, where they work on commonwealth programs and initiatives in the intergovernmental relations branch; they laugh that, across that “classic millennial cycling through different jobs and careers”, the only thing they haven’t been is a parent.
While Gill does not pretend this experience is entirely unique — many of their colleagues “have touched on at least two of those” — they emphasise how invaluable that frontline experience has been in their career as a public servant.
“I find it really fascinating that each one of those spaces functions entirely differently. The language is different, and the way of engaging is so different that you can kind of see how there can sometimes be a lack of understanding between different spaces about the speed at which things happen, or what it’s like to be in a classroom.”
“Personally, I would not feel comfortable doing this role if I hadn’t been a frontline worker,” they say, adding that, “in the back of my mind, there’s always going to be that teacher going ‘would this work in the classroom?’”
The journey between those spheres of education has not always been smooth.
Gill, who holds a Bachelor’s Degree of Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh and masters of both Arts (Anthropology) and Teaching (Secondary) at the University of Melbourne, describes their time as a teacher both the most rewarding and challenging experience of their life.
They note that, as a permanent resident but not a citizen, they could not join the public service while living in Canberra, and explains that moving from a highly-individualised teaching role to a team position in the not-for-profit sector required drastically improving what a mentor called their “help-seeking behaviour”.
Since joining the Victorian Public Service in 2019, they say they have made an effort to ask as many questions and pitch as many ideas as possible. The biggest challenges, Gill notes, have been related to bureaucracy, and balancing the desire for immediacy with policy-making’s need for consideration.
Equally, what has impressed them about working through the challenges is “how much everyone cares.”
“I would say that pretty much every single person I’ve ever worked with has cared deeply about what they do, and ensuring that what they do serves the Victorian people, and especially children and young people.”
“From every level from the policy officer level all the way up to the top, it’s so impressive to sit sometimes in meetings and watch people genuinely engage at certain — even down to the minutiae of — ideas and concepts and decisions to ensure that what’s being done is as good as we can make it and as effective as we can make it for the Victorian people. And I find that inspiring.”
Gill, I should disclose, is a friend of mine, we having met while co-hosting Melbourne community radio station 3CR’s intersectional feminist current affairs show Tuesday Breakfast in 2019.
A trans person of colour, they describe their experience in the VPS as overwhelmingly positive, citing VPS values and guidelines for nigh-universal acceptance of their pronouns; a specifically “wonderful and extremely diverse” team; and several networks to help find more public servants who fit their — sadly, for now — relatively-rare intersection of ethnicity and gender, ie., the VPS Pride Network, and the VPS Women of Colour Network, which is inclusionary for people who do not identify as male.
“As someone who holds multiple identities, that means that within a space of queer people I might be one of the few trans people; within a space of trans people, I might be one of the only people of colour.” Networks, Gill says, help “on those days where maybe you feel like you’re not being seen”, and they call on all public servants, even allies, to join theirs.
But like almost in all Australian workplaces, there are areas of improvement in the public service whereby leadership is still overwhelmingly white, male, straight and cisgender.
Gill speaks passionately — and, in case it’s not already obvious, quite eloquently — on the importance of growing diversity, not just in terms of ethnicity and gender but more subtle areas of privilege such as class.
“My hope is that we continue bringing in people like me, and people even more diverse than me, because we should also acknowledge, I am a very, very privileged person who has a lot of a lot of leg-ups in their life, which makes my minoritised identities much more palatable in any workplace.
“There’s a lot more people that we need to bring in and bring up and I think that — and that is happening, it doesn’t not happen, it is happening — but my hope is that in the future, there will be more diversity in leadership. And that will ensure that everyone has the positive experience that I’ve had.”
Finally, long term, what does Gill hope to achieve across a career that could continue to cycle between the multiple government, not-for-profit, and teaching roles in education?
“All I know that I want to be in life is someone who tries to improve and address the wellbeing of children and young people in whatever capacity that might be,” they say. “So I suppose my ambition in my career as a public servant is to continue doing that, and doing that as effectively as I possibly can.
“All that matters for me is ‘is what I’m doing resulting in positive benefits for children and young people?,’ And if that’s the case, then I am being successful in my job in either the public service or anywhere else I’m in.”